The return of Jürgen Flimm’s 2004 production of Salome to the Met was an occasion to celebrate two debuts: Patricia Racette taking on the title role at the Met for the first time stepping in for Catherine Naglestad, and the young conductor Johannes Debus leading the Met Orchestra in a straightforward but insightful reading of one of Strauss’s masterpieces.  

The production is updated to a modern setting, with the stage divided in half; one half is a glitzy and decadent cocktail lounge of Herod, with a red glittering wall hiding a staircase above, and a spiral staircase below. The other half is a stylized desert with staggered waves of sandy hill. The cistern placed below the front stage has an elevator to raise and lower the prophet Jochanaan as well as his assassin. While some of the staging is awkward and even treacherous to the performers, it highlights the fundamental divide of Salome and her love object, Jochanaan; the sacred and the profane. The two worlds are separated in the middle of the stage, but the balance is disturbed by Salome’s fascination with Jochanaan. Salome freely crosses the boundary in her attempt to seduce him, while he remains in his desert world, chained up. It is only in death that his severed head enters Salome’s world, on a silver platter cradled in her arms.  

Conductor Johannes Debus took a deliberate pace and kept the volume under control so that the singers were clearly heard. While one might have wished for a more romantic and sweeping Viennese waltz in place of his precise and understated reading, he presented the score as one unified movement. Numerous entries and transitions were handled with expert assuredness and continuity; one was never conscious of the pace and mood of the music making major shifts. His achievement was most notable in leading up to Salome’s final minutes as she descends into madness with her dialogue with Jochannan’s head.  The surge of the entire orchestra as Salome sings “Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund”, before being murdered by Herod’s soldier, came as a cathartic release as an unbearable amount of tension was built with the slow clarinet playing Salome’s theme.

Patricia Racette made no pretense of portraying Salome as a spoiled teenager experiencing sexual awakening – this Salome is a mature woman who knows how to get what she wants.  Her early scene with the prophet Jochanaan did not convey the anxiety of a young girl trying to seduce an older man who is unfazed by her charm. Her despair upon the prophet’s final rejection was not apparent. Despite a wide vibrato that kept creeping into her high notes, Racette used her lyrical voice to good effect to sing the demanding role with good German diction. Her stamina was astounding and she did not seem out of breath after the dance of seven veils. The final scene of the opera, in front stage talking to and finally kissing the severed head, brought out her best singing of the evening, as her tireless voice rode above the surging orchestra to a thrilling finale. It was, at the end of the evening, a compelling and noteworthy performance.

Supporting Racette was a strong group of singers, down to a small role of the Page (Carolyn Sproule).  The standout was Gerhard Siegel as Herod; he sang every note of the lecherous but weak step father with accuracy and nuance, his penetrating tenor cutting through the thick orchestration.  His acting was superb, just the right mixture of silliness and desperation.  Nancy Fabiola Herrera was a youthful and attractive Herodias, and her rich and flexible mezzo was a pleasure in this thankless role.   Zeljko Lucic seemed an unlikely choice for Jochanaan, had a booming voice with easy legato and portrayed the noble man with dignity and poise.  

Kang Wang, with a beautiful and clear tenor, made a successful house debut as Narraboth, a young captain in love with Salome.   Another debutant, bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee as the First Soldier impressed both with his expressive voice and intelligent acting.  Kudos to Richard Bernstein as the Second Soldier, reprising the role he sang in the last revival in 2008.

Many of us who arrived at the Met with some trepidation as to how Racette would fare as Salome were pleasantly surprised at her courageous performance, both vocally and acting.  Many recent Salome productions require the heroine to bare it all at the end of the dance, and Racette obliged with several seconds of standing naked from the waist up, followed by a quick second of full frontal nudity.